Aisling in Wicklow 2013

Aisling’s annual trip to Wicklow in March had some unintended consequences for the families of returning emigrants recalls
Alex McDonnell

We had to work hard to get Patrick on this trip. He lives in a wet hostel in South London and although he has had sporadic contact with his family since he left he hasn’t been home for over 30 years. Since then many tragedies have occurred to his family including to his own children. His daughter came to see him recently but she has inherited his chaotic gene and it didn’t end well and after discussions with other family members it was decided that if Patrick was to come with Aisling he would need to keep apart from his daughter, they were just too much alike. Patrick’s predisposition towards alcohol has made his life as an emigrant a bizarre round of drink and more drink. The only way to successfully arrange a homecoming for Patrick had to involve a major cutback in his alcohol intake.

For the last year Charlie has visited him at the hostel and met him at the Aisling office monitoring his drinking and behaviour. By the time March came around Patrick had cut down his drinking to 3 cans of non-super strength beer a day and was looking forward to his trip home. In the minibus heading to Holyhead Patrick sat behind me beaming away to himself and every now and then saying a few words commenting on the music playing on the cd deck, joining in the conversations going on around him and observing whatever views there were to be had on the motorway as it flashed by. ‘Eddie Stobbart…’ he’d say, ‘Mother’s Pride….Watford Gap Services….’.

The others on this trip were a mixed bunch and we were fearful of some dropping out before we set off. One of these was Paul who had not arrived at the first pick-up point at Arlington House in the early hours of Saturday morning. Les and Peter were there but no Paul. Luckily his flat was not too far away and is more or less on the way to Cricklewood where we were picking up the major part of the group. Paul lives on a busy street in a block behind a pub which greedy developers are trying desperately to get their hands on, using some very pushy methods. Recently they began distributing flyers with architect drawings of some off-the-shelf glass and steel box saying what an improvement to the local environment such a building would be to the ‘eyesore’ by which they mean the classic Victorian London pub used by the local community. So far they are having little success. After knocking on Paul’s door for a few minutes eventually his tiny voice came back over the intercom, ‘I am not going to Ireland’. ‘Why not Paul, you’ve been looking forward to this for months?’ I ask. ‘I am just not going’, his voice was sounding a lot more strained and a little desperate. ‘Can I come up for a chat then?’ ‘No just go away and leave me alone.’ The voice was a lot louder now and so I decided to leave.

Paul has been with us twice before but this time would have been the first time he was going back to visit his family and a lot of arrangements had been made which would now have to be unmade but this is the decisive moment and the pressure can seem a bit overwhelming. Later, on the road I was wondering how Paul would be feeling now, would he roll over in bed and wake again later depressed, realising he has missed out on his chance or would he just roll over and breathe a sigh of relief? There will be other chances for Paul but will he take them or will he come so far and draw back again?

As it turned out Paul was the only drop-out on this trip and after the pick-up in Cricklewood we were on the road in our brand new minibus blazing up the M1 at 66 miles an hour. All new minibuses are now fitted with a ‘governor’ that limits the speed. Officially the limit is 62 according to the logo on the dashboard so we should be grateful. As it is, because the engine is so good we are accelerating to 66 very quickly and staying there at cruising speed most of the way to Holyhead where speed restrictions and traffic allow, and so we manage to get to the ferry in good time even with two leisurely food, fag and ablution breaks. We are also more comfortable, have more space and can actually hear the CD player over the noise of the engine.

We had two seats taken out from the front of the minibus behind the driver and have placed a purposely built luggage box there anchored to the seat tracks. The box only comes up to a certain height, lower than we need for 15 people’s luggage so we have been trying to think of a solution. I was in Halfords one day and had a look around but couldn’t find anything that would work so I asked the salesman and described my dilemma. ‘So what you need is like a net that could be placed over the luggage holding it in place, maybe made of some expanding material with hooks to hold the luggage together? You know what, that sounds like a great piece of kit…..’ He started wandering around the aisles looking on various shelves, ‘I don’t think there is anything like that but it would be such a useful thing in so many ways….Oh, here it is’. And there it was… a trailer net! Something a gladiator might keep in the garage next to his trident and axe. Just the job!

We arrived as usual in Dublin around 6.00pm on Saturday and drove through the city heading south towards Wicklow. Dublin was busy putting barriers into place preparing for the big parade tomorrow on St. Patrick’s Day. I looked to the back of the minibus to see curious faces straining to look at the city they had most likely left from years ago on their first fateful journey into exile. We arrived at Avon Ri on the lake just outside Blessington where we would be staying for the next week. This is a great place to hang out for a few days. It’s handy for the town but sufficiently far outside to feel well away from any pressures (although after London Blessington seems a bit like the back of beyond – so I guess we are at the back of the back of beyond).

This year is being promoted as the Gathering year in Ireland in an effort to encourage emigrants home for a visit. Many places are holding events and lots of families and communities have responded to the call. Some cynics, including most famously Gabriel Byrne have suggested that the Gathering is just an excuse to rip off emigrants once again, invite us home so they can stick their hands in our pockets. I must say my first reactions were similar but the way people have responded has been positive and it may turn out to be an inspired initiative. Next year will be Aisling’s 20
year and it might be a good idea for the government to prove their good intentions by offering some funding to Aisling’s Resettlement project, helping our clients to return safely into independent living in Ireland. We have been knocking on this door for at least ten years now with nothing but silence or more often, doors being slammed in our faces. We met with heads of government departments and even ministers over the last few years to try to get some help to bring long term emigrants home to a secure environment where they can resettle. All we have been arguing for is one house of about six units and some accommodation for support workers.

We began this process during the boom years when property was sky rocketing and non-productive returners were not considered a priority and in later years we were informed that priorities were cutting budgets not adding to them. Even more recently we’ve argued (as has the President, Michael D. Higgins) that the vast numbers of vacant properties in NAMA could be put to some practical use but the complications involving the banks seem to put that possibility beyond reach. The Gathering seems to be the perfect opportunity to launch a good news initiative in which everyone in the country can feel that they have some personal stake. Doesn’t every family in Ireland have at least one emigrant brother or sister, uncle or aunt lost in uncertain exile? Won’t they all feel some sort of personal connection to a home where our most needy emigrants can return in safety? What a boost it would be to anyone in government who would support such an initiative during the Gathering year.

Paddy’s Day in Dublin has gotten too big and difficult to access for our clients in recent years and we have been going to local parades recently for a more relaxed, community-based event. Last year we had a great time in Bray and this year we have another reason for going there. Sean’s brother is living in a care home right in the centre of town and so we arrived there around 1.00pm just before the start of the parade, took Sean to his brothers place, got him settled into a B&B next door and left them happy together catching up on the last 20 years-worth of news. We managed to park the van nearby and it was only a short walk then to Holland’s pub on Main Street which we used as our base last year for the duration of the festivities, which were handily going on both within and without the pub. We managed to find a group of seats together and ordered some sandwiches. As we have found elsewhere in Ireland you can’t always get cheese sandwiches and you can’t always get ham sandwiches in Ireland but you can usually get ham and cheese sandwiches so Charlie had to go to the deli up the road for a vegetarian option. The other decidedly non-veg option was the hog roast just outside the door, the succulent aromas of which wafted through to us every few seconds as people were coming and going.

Out on the street all the town and surrounding areas were represented in the parade including local businesses, services, schools, sporting clubs, music schools, pubs etc. Everyone really enjoyed seeing the various floats and groups dressed in their Paddy’s day splendour. As usual these days there are rather too many Victorian stereotypes about of wee Oirish men. Have we co-opted the negative depictions of the Irish in a way similar to African Americans who have subverted racist language for their own usage within the community? Let’s look for the positives to be found in giant top hats, chin beards, clay pipes and pot bellies!

Back at Avon Ri we had a lovely meal in the otherwise deserted dining room overlooking the lake to celebrate St Patrick’s Day among ourselves and it also gave us an opportunity to get to know each other. We all got a chance to say something about ourselves and tell a joke. So a few Paddy the Englishman’s later and the ice was broken and we were looking forward to a week together in the Wicklow countryside. Mario, the long-suffering manager of Avon Ri and his waitress looked after us attending on our every whim however bizarre or mercurial. Chip has a paranoid streak which has been diminishing over recent years, the fact that he was on this trip at all is a major achievement in itself. He also has fixed ideas which may sometimes seem a bit unreasonable. After our meal there were a lot of vegetables left over and Chip can’t abide any kind of waste. There was at least one whole tray and a half full of left over veg which hadn’t been touched and Chip was not leaving without them. At first he tried to get us to eat them all and then decided that he was going to take them home. At first he tried to wrap them all up in napkins then Mario said he could take the silver bowls and bring them back later but that seemed too extravagant to Chip. Eventually we carried them back to the house in plastic bags. Chip was still eating his way through the pile of veg days later.

It was tipping down with rain when we arrived at the small town in Kildare where Patrick was born and the remains of his devastated family are still. After he left school Patrick worked as a farm labourer and his brother was a stable lad and groom on the estate of the local landowner. Back then the town was prosperous (with a small ‘p’) and all of the local people and businesses relied on the landowner keeping them in work. Patrick tells of months spent digging up ditches and hedges, levelling fields until almost all of the land was just a few gigantic fields worked by one man in a machine. This was considered good economic sense for the landowner but spelt death for a whole town. By this time Patrick had a wife and three children and had to travel to England to find work. While he was away two of the children died in a road accident and doom stalked the rest of the family from then on. Patrick took to the drink and never came back from England.

By the time we arrived at his door at 10.00am Patrick’s brother Sean was already drunk and as the rest of us waited outside while Charlie spoke to the family, Sean’s two sons passed by our minibus on the way to the off license. Feeling that Patrick would be vulnerable in the present circumstances Charlie suggested Patrick visited other family members for the time being and we left him with his sister elsewhere on the rain-swept estate while we checked out the local shops and visited friends in Prosperous (with a capital ‘P’).

We eat well on our Aisling trips and these days we are more than ever conscious of healthy eating as our own expanding waistlines are becoming ever more noticeable. Mary and Charlie are on strict diets and gym regimes and John and I go for walks when we can, me to the pub and John to church. This presents a problem when visiting friends of Aisling, Mary and Frank in Prosperous, where Mary spends the day baking before we arrive and the plates of scones, tarts and cakes are piled on the table. More so when half the work force will only eat the crumbs from their plate and half the clients are more interested in drink and smoking outside in the rain. Someone has to make an impression on the feast in the interest of goodwill and Aisling’s good name. So I could barely fit behind the wheel of the minibus on the way back to Patrick’s home town.

By now Patrick was in the pub with his brother Sean, who still looks every inch (not that many) the jockey he once was at the Curragh 30 years ago. And his face was streaming with tears as he and Patrick rode the bar stools drinking their pints of Guinness and reminiscing. Sean held onto my hand while he falteringly told me what it meant to him to see Patrick again after all these years and so we decided to leave them together a little while longer. Charlie was anxiously checking the time and was in regular phone contact with Patrick’s sister as we waited in another pub further down the village. While we waited I had a walk around and I suddenly realised why this place looked familiar when I saw the St. John of God’s sign and I remembered that this is where we brought Peter many years ago to revisit the orphanage that was his home for many years. Peter was staying with his cousins for the rest of this week and so he wasn’t here to see the grim, grey wall and the forbidding façade of the building, which was just as well after the trauma he suffered here.

Back then a group of us came with Peter to see the institution he ran away from over 50 years ago and walked into a tea dance in the day centre that was by then being run by social services. As we walked in the music stopped and the dancers all turned to look at us standing in the doorway. In the centre there were about 20 old and middle aged men dancing with health workers and volunteers from the town. The men turned to us and then came over to Peter. ‘Peter Doyle…’ they said – they all knew him. Peter stood looking in surprise, eventually he said, ‘Eddie Cox, Charlie McGrath….’ and listed off the names of these long forgotten men. One of them said, ‘You left us in the Bog of Allen’. When he was 16 Peter ran away from the Bog when he realised that he wasn’t going to be paid for working 12 hour days cutting turf for the Brothers. Peter was fearful that the matron was about to make a bed up for him so we left after a while. ‘It’s like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, said Peter when we were safely away.

When I got back to the pub Charlie was hustling everyone into the minibus and we drove away apparently just in time. Charlie had the tip-off from Patrick’s sister that Patrick’s daughter was about to arrive and could, unintentionally undo all of the good work she had achieved getting Patrick this far. Patrick was blissfully unaware that the family dynamics were so carefully balanced and was glowing from the great homecoming and the few pints he had had.

Mary wanted to visit her sister in hospital but the sister was very ill and undergoing tests for most of the week so we had to plan it for a time when they could spend a good deal of time together. This proved to be difficult but while we were sightseeing in Dublin one day we got a call from the hospital to say that her sister was free and so we headed across the Liffey to the Mater with Mary so that they could make the most of their time together. Unfortunately her sister was asleep when Mary arrived and she didn’t want to wake her so we had to plan it for another day. Eventually we did manage to make it but it was the day before we were leaving so she wasn’t able to make a follow up visit. They are the last two members of the family and although, as children they had been brought up at first in the same institution they were then separated and it took years for them to re-establish contact after many years searching for each other. In recent years Mary has made it back to visit with Aisling a few times but as they get older it has become more difficult for the sisters, first because Mary’s sister was housebound with illness and now because she has to spend long periods in hospital.

Chip is not short of self-analysis; in fact, he does a bit too much of it and is constantly arguing himself out of situations and into others. It keeps him in a state of constant flux. It has particular down side when it prevents him coming in contact with his family and even visiting his hometown and even the country. He was born in London but spent all his summers in Wicklow and for several years lived in Ireland with his grandmother. After much soul searching he decided to head out to his father’s hometown where he spent much of his boyhood deep in the heartland of Wicklow. Even on the way there he changed his mind a few times and could be heard debating with himself in the back of the minibus. Everyone seemed to know instinctively to let him get on with it and eventually he would come to his own decision.

The family cottage was on the way out of town so when we arrived we drove through and kept going until there were no houses on the side of the road. Chip was in a bit of a panic now. Had we taken the wrong road out of town? Because which road was on the way out depended on which road you took into town. We tried a few different routes but came back to the same original one. It had to be on this road, the first house past the bend in the road. It had to be one of these two or maybe that third one. No it had to be this one but someone had pulled it down and rebuilt it nearer to the road. Could it be that the road had been widened and had taken some of the front garden? No, it was the same width as it had always been. No, they must have pulled the house down and moved it. Chip was pretty exasperated now. His memory was not of this house in this position. We went back to the town and eventually left altogether while Chip got his thoughts in order.

A few days later Chip was feeling as lot more settled and decided that he would like to go back to the town but this time we could leave him there for a few hours and he would have a wander around and maybe visit some people. So that is what we did and used the time Chip was occupied to see some of Wicklow. Our minibus was driving like a dream and we had come over the Sally Gap that morning where the roads were icy and fog had made visibility poor. As we arrived at the other end of the steep descent into Glendalough my phone rang. It was from the Ford dealer in Walthamstow, back in London, who had repaired the minibus when it was recalled for faulty brakes the week before we left England. It was being recalled again – the brakes again. I felt a bit dizzy after our mountain drive, ‘Can it wait till we get back?’ I asked. ‘Now that I have told you if anything happens, you won’t be covered by your insurance’. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I said. ‘Well your brake pedal could fall off’. I got on the phone right away and found a garage in Dublin that could fix it the next day. In the meantime we drove around the mountains not over them for the rest of the day. By the time we picked up Chip he was in fine form. He wouldn’t elaborate but said that he had done everything he had wanted to do and was relaxed and contented now.

We arrived at the Ford dealer in Rialto where they were expecting us and while a mechanic worked on the brakes outside in the cold we took over the showroom, trying out (sitting inside and turning the steering wheel) the new Ford models on display, drinking the ‘complementary’ coffee and queuing for the loo. Back on the road again we headed into town, this time we went to the museum at the O’Connell barracks to look at the 1916 exhibition, which was pretty poor to be honest, with very few artefacts and little or no interaction. With the centenary only three years away they really need to start improving on their representation of the defining moment in the nation’s history. The events of 1916 caused major repercussions around the world, notably the Indian Mutiny and marked the beginning of the end of British colonial rule. Whatever your opinion on the rights or wrongs of political violence, the historical significance of 1916 is undeniable; but political leaders in Ireland these days seem embarrassed by the Irish rebellion as, it seems are many young people. It is impossible to imagine the Americans or French taking a similar attitude to their own revolutions, as they see themselves as being defined by their struggles for independence and liberty. These coming years should be a great opportunity for Ireland to embrace the past as any mature nation must. It’s another great opportunity too to recognise the contribution made by emigrants to modern Ireland and welcome them home, not just for the Gathering but permanently for those who desperately want to return. A permanent exhibition in a museum like this one of Ireland’s diaspora wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Such an exhibition would need to be honest enough not to trot out clichés of hardship then for earlier generations and prosperity now for today’s emigrants. Emigration is a curse for families, communities and the nation alike. So many times it has been used as a safety valve to relieve economic hardship, a repeated practice which has weakened the country, losing hundreds of thousands of dynamic men and women each generation or so. It is getting harder for young people to find their way and prosper in the world and even with Facebook and an iPhone you can still get lost easily enough if things don’t work out.